I sat down with San Francisco-based artist and performer, Jesse Hewit, in November before his upcoming performance, Freedom, as a part of a shared evening with fellow Bay Area choreographer, Laura Arrington. Their shared evening, The Dog Show, took place at Z Space in San Francisco, December 8-11, 2011. We discuss Hewit’s creative process, dance making insecurities, and the many meanings collaboration takes in artistic development. Interview Date: November 18, 2011
Milka Djordjevich: What are you working on now and how is it potentially different from what you’ve done before?
Jesse Hewit: That’s funny because that is everything I am working on: I’m working on something that is different than what I’ve done before. It almost feels like anything of that nature, I almost don’t know how to talk about it. So that is something to be considered. So I was talking to the folks that I work with and I do a lot, these days, of sitting in front of them and negotiating how much to talk and explain. We’ve had tiffs over me being withholding with my reasons or my dramaturgy or my thinking or whatever. So I am trying to be more expressive and explanative with them lately. So, I’ll have these things where we’ll all sit down and I’ll be like, “Ok guys, I am going to talk for like 7 minutes, if that’s okay.”
So we did this thing about six or seven months ago that Margaret Jenkins does in San Francisco called Chime [a mentorship program for professional choreographers]. And Ralph Lemon is the Chime Across Borders mentor for this year. He was in town preliminarily before the mentorship started. And he was having a conversation with Margaret that was public. He met with Margaret – and Margaret is so interesting, right? She is seventy and she has built a dynasty of everything that is dance in the Bay Area. Anyway, she is sitting at this table with Ralph, they have their glasses of wine and their microphones. It’s so amazing! And she’s really formal with him. She looks amazing. She is so beautiful, you know? She is asking him all these questions about his journey and his development as an artist, and the way things are changing as he grows older. His relationships to funders and grantees and all these things that come with being an artist. And Ralph. He doesn’t give a fuck! You know?! He’s also very antiestablishment, he’s a very radical kid in a lot of ways. And there’s one point where she was asking Ralph a question about production, how things have changed over the years in terms of producing and mounting work. And he’s in a place right now. He’s in full resentment of this cultural expectation to show work. It was funny, I remember I was watching this. Walking into this room, I was obsessed with Ralph. I adore his work, it’s inspiring for me. I didn’t even know him yet at this time. Anyway, Margaret’s like, “What’s your favorite way to work?” and he’s like, “In my head. I never want to have to show people. It’s so painful, it’s so violent to have to show people my work.” And I was just like, “BAH! You fucking pretentious rich bitch. I hate you!” I was actually very disappointed. I was really disheartened by him. It was funny because I kind of came full circle. I walked away with it with the appreciation that Ralph is fully himself and he is a person of conflict. That he is a developing artist just like anyone else. And I felt really at peace with that, but I definitely felt that condescension and eye roll around this idea, that we shouldn’t have to show our work. It’s so violent for our sense of self. I didn’t give it that much thought and still love Ralph’s work. Then Chime came along and I worked in the studio with him. And I really developed a relationship with that man, that was probably mostly felt by me, not as much by him [laughs]. He taught me a lot about risk; he taught me a lot about working with people I don’t understand and who don’t understand me; he taught me a lot about entering a room or a space with politics, paradynamics, human beings, objects, colors, textures; and making a work, basically. Making work in an interesting way. So, I was like, “You know, really feeling Ralph.”
Anyway, fast forward. I am making this piece right now, Freedom, and we’ve been working since March. It’s just been this continual barrage of questions and inquiries and weird little pockets getting opened up inside of me. Like narrative pockets of, “Oh, this thing happened in this story, this image happened when I was 12, or when I was 18,” and now it’s forcing its way into the work. What do I do with it, you know? What it’s been is this incredible series of starts and stops, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of having show-stoppingly brilliant ideas in my head, either produced by me or produced by one of the dancers I am working with. And just being so overwhelmed by all of it. I can’t take it and be like, “Oh now I am going to put this in the show in this place and build transitions around it.” And I am not trying to be precious, in that it’s all so beautiful and I don’t know what to do. It’s the process of the research, finding things out, constantly being wrong and constantly having things that I think are interesting and actually only lead to more questions. Then engaging in feedback with people about what I’ve shown them, which only lead to more questions. That’s just so much more interesting than the idea of deciding what’s worth putting up in Z Space next month. I have just been fighting tooth and nail every time I go in the studio to be like, “Today’s the day I make the piece! Today’s the day I realize and decide!” You know? And I had to beat it out of myself and I think I have. But I am at this place where all of a sudden, Ralph Lemon is resonating in my brain with this: I don’t want to have to produce bullshit and I feel it. I really feel it.
…I am really excited about the stuff we’ve done. I am really comfortable situating myself in a place where I can say to people, “This is what we’ve been looking at for the past year. I am proud about the choices we are going to put up next month.” I am really invested and always surprised by my performers. I am giving them choices, I say choices like the scores of the piece, I am giving them tons of room to change and fluctuate every night. I want to embed lots of opportunities for freedom for the performers inside of them, essential to a piece that deals with what we’re dealing with…I’ve been thinking and working in the studio for about a year now, about the concept of a freedom and how it relates to dominant narratives of monsters, villains, evil as created by the collective Americana psyche slash the media. And we’ve done a lot of work that I think is really, really interesting and we are going to show that. We are actually going to show about 1% of it [laughs].
Photo courtesy of Jesse Hewit
Milka: I wanted to ask about this issue that I think everyone making a performance work or any other work deals with: what happens in the process and how does that exist in the performance? I wonder about your approach. You mentioned you are trying to give the performers freedom and space, so maybe that’s a way to deal with some of the process in the performance in a way. I’ve been really interested in this because, well there are a few things: I really relate to this idea of how much you reveal to the performers. I’ve dealt with this a lot in different ways, and at a certain point I stopped working with performers because I realized that I needed to figure some shit out. I do think that sometimes there is something that happens when you try to articulate through language to performers. It somehow distills and in a way doesn’t give the full impact of what it is that you’re interested in. I find that there is a skill or method involved in how to communicate the creation to performers. And then if you try to communicate through language in a specific way, each performer probably has their own individual way of interpreting that. And it may not be the right way for them to engage in what’s happening…
Jesse: Which is a shitload of stuff to consider and a shitload of extra work.
Milka: Yeah, yeah.
Jesse: Which I can totally understand why you stopped working with performers. I’ve made group pieces for the past three years with, you know, five or six people. And I am ready to not. That sociological interaction of dealing with people is very interesting. Absolutely. But every piece I’ve made has spiraled down into that essentially, because we are all strong people, we have strong personalities and strong intellect and the idea of creating space for performers to be free, some people don’t want that. You can totally hire or collaborate with or whatever, the most wild, intelligent, capable dancer, and they just might not want what you’re asking them to have.
Milka: Exactly, totally that. I think that what ends up happening at a certain point is, instead of viewing the work, you go in your apartment or whatever and you’re thinking over and over and over again about the rehearsal. Then, you come to rehearsal and you’re like, “Ah these people! They’re here!”
Jesse: Oh my God! Exactly!
Milka: And so after working on my own and also making a point to work more collaboratively in these duet form collaborations where we produce really different work than I had done prior to that. I then did desire to work with a group of people again, but figuring out a way to negotiate all these issues. So I decided to work with people with really strong personalities who were my friends and who are really interesting. But I think what ended up happening is that I made a series of assumptions when I was working with them that they wanted the same things I wanted, and not all of them did. I suddenly was so disappointed, like, “These are my friends! They should want what I want!” [laughs] And they didn’t. It was really difficult because I felt like I was put in a place where I was offering something and I was put in a place where I get these blank stares back, like, “Wait…what is this? What are we doing?”
Jesse: Yeah, it’s heartbreaking.
Milka: It’s heartbreaking. And then I get super insecure: “Do I know how to make work? What’s wrong with me?”
Jesse: It’s a really funny experience to talk to someone and they’re describing an experience and how else do I say this any more crudely? I’ve had the same experience! The progression of events: this is how I am going to explain it, explain it to the performer, the person who you know is just a ball of fire and brilliance goes, “Ugh…” And you decide you have to quit your life [laughs]. Why does that mean that, which then means that?
Milka: It’s horrible too because in working with people again, I have to be honest: I am the author. I am doing all this administrative work, I am doing all of this thinking, constructing and stuff. And I collaborate intensely with who I am working with, but for me to say we work equally in collaboration, there’s a power dynamic, you know what I mean? That also gets difficult too. I suddenly have this guilt as if I am not pleasing them. But at the same time, I feel like they should meet me in the middle.
Jesse: Oh my God. “Save it for your boyfriend,” you know what I mean? I am always like, “How do I have five intimate relationships right now?”
Milka: Then in relation to that, maybe it’s just me projecting or assuming, but do you find that one of the issues in figuring out what to put in the piece is about the fixed nature of its existence and it almost becoming more like an object or like a fixed thing? And then in relationship to that, does this also relate to how you are approaching how the performers perform the work and what they are doing?
Photo courtesy of Jesse Hewit
Jesse: Yeah, sure. I think if the performers have an understanding that this is “it,” they perform it in a certain way. But if the performers have an understanding that this is version 372 and there will be 665 versions, they will perform it in a different way. I also think it’s totally different every project. The really decisive thing I realized about this project is we just don’t have time. It’s just not over. It’ll maybe be over in five years. So that’s the first time that’s happened to me, where I’ve been at a point where, technically speaking, in order to mount a show for December 8th, I need to decide what the show is in some regard. And I truly have no impulse to do that. That’s never actually happened before. I’ve always been really excited about the cobbling points. And I just don’t care about it right now. So the way I am thinking about it with this project, first of all, is getting super humble with myself about the fact that every week I am super turned on by something different and it’s just not going to stop. It’s going to keep on happening until the day we put the fucking thing up. And so talking to myself with that language like: “This week I am really, really excited about this.” Or, “Today I am really excited about this.” Or, “As opposed to this morning, tonight I am really excited about this.” I think what that yields is that there are certain things that we are landing on and there’s one thing in this piece that has stuck since day one and that we’ve been doing forever and ever and ever. And then there’s one other thing that’s been there since day five. And everything else has been trickling in. And of course there is one massive section of the piece that’s probably a quarter of the entire evening that we will show in December, but we totally haven’t it made. So it’s sort of a weird fit of fancy in a way. But that seems to me to be the only way to interact honestly with the material.
Milka: There’s no answer to this, but how do we let ourselves do what we need to do for the performance? Ok, let me back up. I’ll frame it a different way. How much of what you’re doing and the issues that come up have to do with the expectation of what people think they need to see?
Jesse: Too much. Way too much. I mean, you know we all have different personalities and different psychologies under our skin. I have a tremendous amount of struggle with needing to be praised and liked. It’s a personality trait. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. So that manifests itself as a very specific challenge for me when it comes time to working to do what the piece needs, as opposed to working to make the thing that’s going to impress. Right? I know it. I am conscious of it, so this is good. But it is still something I have to fight against. And that’s actually where I got swallowed a couple weeks ago. I think that’s pretty much the thing that is pushing me down. I’ve had an overwhelming year: dealt with a lot of fucking work, I’ve worked for other people, I’ve traveled, I met some of my heroes, I worked with some of my heroes. There’s definitely a flutter inside of me right now, of expectation and possibility and also monstrous insecurity. Because I am seeing what I want to be, what I don’t want to be, what I want to make, what I don’t want to make. And how do you describe how something just takes hold of you? You know? Why? Why all of a sudden you look back and you realize for four months you’ve had part of your brain shut off and all you can think about it how horrible it will be if people don’t like your work. I am astonished. It’s actually very incredible, literally. I am incredulous at how much I gave myself over to that and for how long. And God bless my instincts because I woke up one day after a lot of tears and frustration and was like, “So guess what, you can’t do that.” That’s my therapy moment.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Hewit
Milka: They’re a few things: I think what’s hard about making art, particularly something about performance, is that there is so much of yourself involved and yourself attached to what it is. I feel like when I talk to artists at any stage of their career, it’s so hard to separate the work from self. Particularly, I think in American culture where we have to have our day jobs and all this stuff, somehow art is other than work. It’s this expression of self, who we are, and what we want to be. It’s less about “will people like the work or not,” and “will people like me or not?” I struggled with that a lot when I was doing these collaborations, where I am co-signing equally with one other person. And it’s difficult on both ends because the big issue that came up was this element of trust and trusting each other to do what we’re doing together. I think in making work, you sometimes don’t trust yourself. So, if you’re already doubting yourself and your ideas and you have another person who’s doing it also, and you’re working together, it’s amplified. For me it made work that ended up being a lot more separate from myself because I had to intersect with someone else. I somehow was able to realize, this is my work, but it’s also this thing. And at the same time, because of that detachment with it, made me even more anxious about how people would receive it because it’s even more separate from self. The people don’t know that and then they are going to think it’s me. I negotiate that and understanding ultimately not everyone’s going to like your work no matter what. Who can we say sits there and says everybody loves their work? That’s just impossible. I think this element is difficult to do, but I think if you stay honest and true with what you’re doing, there is this element that people can see just as much as you thinking it’s going to be good or not.
I don’t even know you that well, but I feel like during that process a few weeks ago at the showing, I was really aware of your insecurity about whether or not people would like it. But, what I saw in the work was really strong and really great, but then I really read that from you. So suddenly it’s like I am reading what you’re feeling about, versus what I am actually seeing.
Jesse: Oh God, I hate that I did that [laughs]!
Milka: The thing is, we all do it. I do this too. I did this piece with this composer, Chris Peck, and it was a really different sort of performance where we were making work for each other, performing for each other, making work together. We had the premiere and we were both really nervous about it. And it was the night they were reviewing it in the New York Times. I was so nervous. All of my close friends were there, and important people, and all this stuff. In the review the only negative thing was “they seem to be nervous.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” It’s crazy how that became a thing that I had no idea [about].
Photo courtesy of Jesse Hewit
Jesse: It’s so funny too because it’s really just what day they catch you on. We’ve all been a ball of anxiety at different points. I mean I was a hot ass mess on the 26th of October when I showed you all that stuff and if we did it again tonight, I’d probably enjoy the shit out of that stuff and we’d go out for drinks afterwards.
Milka: I also think it’s interesting, not in relationship to makers or performers in the work, but how an audience can be different night to night. It’s really interesting and how it affects it. Or like what happened earlier today with the weather.
Jesse: I was thinking about that today. I think honestly, the weather and the seasons matter. When we do the piece at Z Space, it’s this big, big, big space that can be really cold if you don’t do certain things. And if we set the work really far upstage and don’t use much warm light, and everyone’s really cold and we make a piece about love, does it work? Obviously, you take space into account, but I was really thinking about how I want to be cozy right now. And how if everyone who comes to my show really wants to be cozy, is my show going to make them feel cozy? And if it doesn’t, are they not going to like it because it didn’t make them feel cozy? I went into a funny place with my brain. But this idea that everyone just comes with different sensorial, and personal, and random things to lay on top of your work or not.
Milka: That makes me think about how it’s easy when making work to not think about the experience of the audience. For instance if I am entering the door to knock or whatever, and how important that is. I don’t ever think about that because it’s such a codified thing: it’s a theater! It’s a black box! You know the theater, there’s a way they do things. And it somehow compartmentalizes performances in that way.
In relation to that, I wanted to ask about the visual element of the work. It is so sensorial and I know you’ve described the set to me, but I am curious about that.
Jesse: For a long time, I wanted to do the grass thing. Yeah, Pina Bausch. And initially I thought the whole piece was raised and it was actually on a really big platform that was high up and you couldn’t really see all of it. But then I became less interested in that because it’s a really specific technicality to be working in and I wanted to do more a visceral, frontal type of performance. Z Space is big and it allows for a lot of square footage on the floor. This piece originally started by thinking about relationships between dogs and humans and the way that watching creative play and impulsive dogs is really antagonizing for people because of our relationship to impulse, which is really complicated. Not so much with dogs. I thought about yards and wanted a yard back then. But then when the piece became more about people, the grass thing continued to work. I don’t know why yet. And maybe it won’t. For me it’s a yard. A place where people run and jump and play. A place where the ground rubs off on you. I don’t want necessarily to say the performers are portraying children, because they are not in my opinion, but it is a kind of childlike freedom to the way they are doing certain things. Also I feel like grass is an archetypically familiar or suggestive of a very particular codified, American backyard: Mom and Pop, safe, enclosed, play space, which has a particular set of rules with it. A lot about this piece is about breaking the rules we did in space. You know, de-terrotorializing a space you have particular assumptions about. So another layer on top of that is a lot of things we are doing is very complicated stuff around the monster terrorist, or displays of sluttery in public and things like this. But, they are happening in the physical context of their backyard. Backyard, almost like a soccer field. A little bit like a prison yard, which brings in the lighting concept.
We took booms, a bunch of traditional instruments and a bunch of nontraditional instruments, like florescent pods with florescent bulbs in them, and created these clustered structures with all these different kinds of light. They are freestanding, almost like robots, and they are standing on the outside of the perimeter, all facing in on the green. They are a little bit interrogative in terms of how they shed light. They are also a little bit enclosing and then they are interesting also, because they are on the head eye level of the performers, so they create light in a way that is immediate. Everything that manifests from your face in terms of emotions and stories, whether it’s lit or not, it’s happening right in front of the performers’ faces. So the performer gets to interact immediately with tropes of light or darkness. It’s happening right there. It’s not like it’s environmental or atmospheric. It’s actually just light or not light. I like that element of it. And beyond that, I think whatever tones or narratives pop up as a result of those two elements of design, so be it. We’ll see.
Also, in terms of costumes we had an interesting time. We had a really interesting, ongoing conversation with the costume designer about it. And once again, like I said, I am fucking loving the process. It’s so great. We started with the concept of talking about human drag. The designer first put us in panty hose that were pulled up a little strangely with magenta paint, highlighting our mucus membranes, or our soft spots. But then it felt too surreal and conceptual for me because the actual content of the piece is really difficult. I wanted things to be pedestrian in terms of clothing. The costume designer had been talking to the performers about who they would be if they could just do a different life. So, someone would be like: “Oh, I want to be a builder,” “I want to be something with the Earth,” “I want to be a gazelle,” “I want to be a wrestler.” We’ll basically combined all these things and the person I am working with is a really great garment builder. So, they’re taking all these bits of the performers and creating these original garments that are not specifically elusive to any one of those things. Actually, it’s just an original garment that is just elusive enough for the performer for their knowledge, that they can interact with the costume and interact with the costume that allows them a certain sense of freedom and imaginativeness in the performance. The viewer is not going to see it as like, “Oh, clearly Loren wanted to be half stripper half stay-at-home mom,” you know what I mean? So that’s exciting. It comes out looking sort of like high fashion. But they are very personalized and intentional garments for each performer, so I am really enjoying that. It’s funny that we started in a place that was really conceptual and wild and weird, and we ended up more on this, make clothes to fit the secret dreams of the person without making it costumey. So that’s been fun. We are working with really blocky primary colors and patterns for that because we don’t want the clothes to be what’s happening. We want them to just be worn and interacted with by the performer. In terms of visual stuff, it’s a bunch of people being who they really wanna be, sort of. Sometimes coming with some difficulty on a big sheet of sod, with eye level florescent lights in their face [laughs].
Photo courtesy of Jesse Hewit
Milka: I also wanted to ask you, this is a question that I wanted to ask Laura Arrington but we ran out of time. She was describing the two of you as collaborators, not creatively, but in the way you collaborate in modes of production, like collaborating producing this evening together. This is interesting. What is it like to create a work with another artist who you relate to and want to share the production side of things? And also can you talk about the concept of the title of the evening?
Jesse: I think initially when we started doing this – because we’ve been doing this for years now – it was just going on impulse, like a personal affinity moment, you know? I feel really proud that we didn’t ever lay down a lot of garbage about why we produce together because I think there does need to be some magic in this world, you know what I mean? The fact that we never explained why, feels really good now, especially because we have given ourself a shit ton of room to figure out why. And just recently we’ve had some really good talks about why. I don’t know what Laura told you, but I’ll tell you where I am landing with it: Laura and I produce together because we get tremendous discursive benefits from putting our work up next to each other. We have a lot of similar agitation about the larger artist economy that we exist in: as young people, as queers, as Americans. As you know, it’s not like we are making money and getting famous, so you might as well be around people that are going to really massage your guts the way you get massaged. And Laura and I are both pretty effusive and pretty crazy and we really want to continue to push alternative ways of considering social structures and social codes. That manifests itself in us doing an evening around performative femininity or an evening around domesticity and freedom, or things like this. But really for us, it’s just this, as trite as it may sound, this very, very deep lifelong agitation with people. I am not going to nail it down, but I will say something about how we are dissatisfied with the way meaning is made; pervasive strategies of meaning making. We want to encourage people to think differently, think closely, think creatively about what they’re seeing. And our aesthetics are sometimes similar, sometimes not at all. Our roles and our ways of executing projects and our desires for what we want them to be are sometimes similar, sometimes not at all. I don’t know man. We get together and we complain and we get excited and we freak out and we cry and we criticize each other and we fight but it’s all about really wanting to continue making work. So, if you know someone like that and they are kind of at a similar place to you, in terms of how you identify within your career and whether that’s important to you or not, and you have really, really, really hot generative conversations, whether the work looks good next to each other or not, I don’t fucking care. Whether the themes of the pieces are speaking to each other, I don’t really care. It’s more like we are occupying a headspace around what it means to make work and be who we are and we share that. That’s where we understand each other. That’s who we should be interacting with. Maybe if I was thinking more capitalistically or intelligently, you know making work with people who make you look good and make you look smart. But we’re not really doing that. We are just sticking with each other because the conversation is real, it’s dynamic, it’s messy, and we don’t want that to change. We like that about each other. It sounds really romantic. And maybe it is and maybe it’ll blow up in our face. But I’m rolling with it.
Milka: Well, I think just from that relationship it’s like you guys make each other look good. You know what I mean? It’s not that that’s the goal, but you probably look more good next to each other because of that, than if you actually strategically planned to do that.
Jesse: I am really curious to see where it’s going to go. We’ve reached the point, where there’s no hidden agenda, it’s not like we can’t afford to do an evening on our own. We’ve both done other things on our own. But it’s almost the moment to decide what this means and I think it’s coming up pretty soon. I don’t mean get really static about what it means, but figure something out. Because I am also wondering, do we collaborate on something? We applied to collaborate on something that may be happening next year but we’d need a lot of money to do it because it’d be really expensive. And if it happens it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens with the collaboration. We’ve already really, really torn each other down to the point where we didn’t trust each other and stopped speaking for months at a time. We’ve already gone through that shit. I think we’re going to be okay [laughs]!
Milka: It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier. But you’ve already gone through the first major hurdles.
Jesse: It’s so funny because we’re friends again now, but back when we were friends we had bought plane tickets to go to Berlin together. And then some things happened and some months passed and we were not friends. So when we boarded the plane together we hadn’t spoken in quite a few months, and it was such an experience [laughs]! It was great! And everything turned out good. We gave each other a shit ton of space, so it was good.